Hollywood, sci-fi authors, and other pop culture institutions have long included science in their tools of the trade. Take, for example, the chemistry in the James Bond movies or the cloning and molecular biology in Jurassic Park.
Lately, though, this trend has been reversed, with scientists including references to pop culture in their scientific publications. The pop culture shoutouts vary in their meaningfulness, from simple hooks in the introduction of an article to the naming of entire genera after pop stars.
One of the most interesting uses of pop culture in science is the naming of the fern genus Gaga. One characteristic that all of the distinct species within this new genus shared was a “GAGA” pattern in a specific part of their DNA sequences. DNA — short for deoxyribonucleic acid — consists of four nucleic acid bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytosine (C). So, the species in the GAGA genus have a segment of their DNA that alternates between guanine and adenine bases.
The authors named the genus after Lady Gaga based on this pattern, as well as on her commitment to equality and individual expression. The authors wrote, “Because Lady Gaga speaks to the need for humanity to celebrate broad differences within its own species, we hereby provide her with a scientific namesake that characterizes the struggle to understand the intricate biology underlying cryptic patterns of diversity.”
Other pop culture references in scientific papers happen within the first few sentences of their introductions. Some papers’ introductions connect a film to the science discussed in the article, hooking the reader in and providing them with an accessible framework to understand the paper’s goal.
The best use of a pop culture reference I’ve seen is the use of the movie Fantastic Voyage as a frame of reference in understanding DNA nanoscale technology. A paper called “DNA Nanocarriers: Programmed to Deliver,” published in the journal Trends in Biochemical Sciences, uses Fantastic Voyage — which follows a submarine that is shrunk to microscopic size to target a blood clot — to explain how DNA nanostructures could be used to fix pathologies or as drug delivery vehicles. In short, the film introduces the idea of nanoscale vehicles, and the science delivers.
Other pop-culture references in papers are much smaller. “Fantastic Yeasts and Where to Find Them: the Hidden Diversity of Dimorphic Fungal Pathogens” in the journal Current Opinion in Microbiology well describes the subject of its paper, but the movie referenced in the title is never mentioned again.
Coming full circle, there are increasingly more pop culture references in science articles. An article called “Pop-culture references in peer-reviewed scientific articles” by Arun Richard Chandrasekaran in the journal Matter lays out how pop culture references could be used to engage students as well as general audiences. He believes the rise of interdisciplinary journals makes it more important for scientists to appeal to audiences outside their fields and presents the pop culture reference as a solution. The trend of including pop culture references is still in its infancy, but it is slowly becoming more prominent. From naming a fern genus after Lady Gaga to making an analogy between drug delivery vehicles and the submarines in Fantastic Voyage, scientists have been taking advantage of pop culture references to explain or introduce science ideas in a memorable way and to ground the science in more publically accessible knowledge. It’s really a way of democratizing science research.